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There's a Good Chap

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If you've ever read anything by P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh; if you've ever found yourself saying "“ even just in your head or under your breath "“ "Good show!" "Steady on!" or "Jolly good!"; if you've ever sipped a Martini and contemplated your life as the idle rich; if you've ever longed for a simpler time when men were gentlemen and women were ladies; well, you might be a Chap.

In the hearts and minds of the Chap, the British Empire still looms large on the stage of world power, Americans are still uncouth upstarts, and a G&T (or 10) is still a socially acceptable beverage at lunch (keeps the malaria away, after all). And this past Saturday, more than 1000 Chaps of all shapes, sizes, genders and interpretations of period costume gathered under appropriately gloomy skies in beautiful Bedford Square Gardens in Bloomsbury to celebrate the sixth annual Chap Olympiad.

This exercise in wonderfully creative anachronism was the brainchild of The Chap magazine, a bimonthly glossy dedicated to chronicling and celebrating the achievements of that dying breed, the English gentleman and the English lady. According to its website, "The Chap believes that a society without courteous behaviour and proper headwear is a society on the brink of moral and sartorial collapse, and it seeks to reinstate such outmoded but indispensable gestures as hat doffing, giving up one's seat to a lady and regularly using a trouser press."

Basically, The Chap is seated squarely in the kind of nostalgic thinking (and drinking) that causes 21st century folks to take up swing dancing, attempt to resurrect long-dead cocktails, and wear fashions that were questionable at the time, but are now simply quaint.

linda-chapAnd I absolutely wanted to be a part of it. When my husband and I moved to London back in February, this is precisely what I thought life would be like: An endless supply of G&Ts and Martinis, bon mots and understated witticisms, well turned out gentlemen in proper hats and three-piece suits and ladies in gloves and Victory roll hair-dos. This was the London that I'd read about "“ though mostly in books published before 1945.

However, for the most part, my experience with what the Brits call "fancy dress" has been limited to college: From Glam Rock to Catholic School Girls, college provided boundless opportunities to dress, ahem, provocatively. The Chap Olympiad was something else entirely, an occasion to be a bit more classy. But while the Brits seem to be generally up for any such event, ready to dive into whatever costume the party requires with gusto, my husband and I were a bit more reticent. Would we be the only ones in period costume? Would we look silly?

We needn't have worried. If we stuck out, it was only because we didn't go far enough "“ Chaps came dressed in everything from Victorian-era explorers ensembles complete with pith helmets to1940s servicemen uniforms, from turbans and feathers a la the 1920s to long underwear and top hats. On display was a veritable universe of millinery "“ golf caps to straw hats, bowlers to fedoras, trilbies to beanies, even the odd fez or two "“ and that was just the men "“ while pipes, canes, and proper umbrellas were the accessories of choice. One chap had even come armed with a "skirt-lifting device," with mirror attachment to facilitate said lifting. (I was clad in what another chap called "evacuation chic" "“ "˜40s-style printed dress paired with gray cable-knit socks and brown brogues "“ while my husband opted for a tie, shirt, brown pin-striped pants; we're already planning what we're going to wear next year.)

And despite the constant threat and actual presence of rain "“ which, truth be told, has never really stopped the British from anything "“ the be-costumed Chaps and Chapettes spent a long, lovely afternoon drinking Pimms and G&Ts, complimenting one another on their outfits, and watching or trying their hands at games such as the Grand Steeplechase (just like an ordinary steeplechase, except the jockeys are ladies and the gentlemen kitted up as horses, as well as other beasts of the field), Umbrella Jousting (gentlemen riding full tilt at one another on bicycle, armed with umbrellas and reinforced copies of The Daily Telegraph, and protected by a bowler hat), the Cucumber Sandwich Discus (individuals must hurl a cucumber sandwich on a china plate, with points given to keeping the sandwich on the plate), and even the impromptu game of Spooned Orange Jousting (believe it or not, I actually managed to win a round of that).


Not exactly activities that kept the sun rising over the British Empire, but a brilliant example of British Chap-manship nonetheless. Queen Victoria would have been more than proud.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]